fortune teller

In the days when I was making much of my living from lecturing, I was generally careful not to make specific technological predictions about the future, particularly the easy ones — faster computers, cures (or ameliorations) for most diseases. I did let myself talk about social trends, though, and one trend I thought I had spotted was what I called the growth of corporate leisure time.

See, I had observed that as people became more prosperous they, or at least some of them, began to be willing to devote some of their recently acquired leisure time to doing things for people who needed help. They might help hand out Christmas baskets for the poor in the holiday season, or volunteer to drive the destitute to their doctors’ appointments, when they could get any. Whatever. It did happen. I saw it. And if this were true for individual humans, why shouldn’t corporations do the same?

I even thought I saw signs that some such process was beginning to happen with corporations, opening art galleries, or underwriting schools or classes. And especially I thought that it was happening with institutions like AT&T’s Bell Labs, the brightest jewel in America’s research diadem, where the executives in charge of the program were letting the scientists themselves decide some of the research programs they wanted to pursue.

Well, it sounds flimsier now than it did half a century ago, but I did get some powerful seconds to the those motions., one from Sylvia Porter, whose newspaper column on the financial world was the most widely syndicated in America.

And now in these opening years of the twenty-first century, how fecklessly naïve we all seemed! That isn’t how things are going at all.

 
Time was, back around 1960 or before, people bought stock in corporations because they wanted a share in their earnings. The plan was not to watch the price of the stock go up on the New York Stock Exchange and then sell it for profit when the price looked right. It was simply to tuck those gorgeously engraved stock certificates away in a safe place — under the matresss, maybe — and collect those quarterly dividend checks for the rest of your life.

(Oh, there were stock speculators, sure, wild men like Bet-a-Million Gates and his ilk, but reasonable investors stayed away from that kind of thing.)

So then what happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. Bonuses happened. Executives stopped working for those handsome salaries and expected large lump-sum payments. And the whole financial structure that held the markets together went mad.

 
Next: “The Bonus Babies.” Coming soon to a computer near you.

6 Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    Amen, brother. The acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake became a goal, without any other motivation. Honestly, I don’t see how the people who make that kind of money can possibly need it. I suppose it is possible to spend it all, but beyond a certain point the act of acquiring more wealth than you can possibly use becomes a mental illness, like filling up your house with garbage that you pick up on the side of the road.

  2. Mike Woodhouse says:

    While I wouldn’t for a second claim that it’s either widespread or deeply embedded in corporate culture, I’d say that – in some places at least – the tiniest of seeds are germinating.

    The large German bank for which I work has a program whereby volunteers can spend a few (I just checked – two) days a year working on various sponsored community projects – on the company dime (or euro).

    Not much, but more than nothing.

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    Bonuses are a symptom. The disease is short-term thinking, short-term planning, and a get-rich-quick-and-get-out career model.

  4. Fred Swetland says:

    @Mike W: Back when I worked for a large health insurance company (_____, I’m Glad I Met Ya!) I was also allowed a couple days a year to participate in community enrichment/volunteer projects. However, I always had the impression that my company used it as a cynical attempt to ameliorate the public perception of their business. Of course, that may just be my own cynical view coloring everything around me.

  5. Jonathan Roth says:

    To a certain extent, you were right. They might have had to cut back on it due to the recent economy, but google has (had?) an 80/20 system where some of their people could spent 20 per cent of company time working on a \"pro bono publica\" project rather than something directly profit related. This (if I recall correctly) resulted in a program that examine pictures, can tell which ones were taken from the same place, reconstruct that area and help authorites find missing and exploited children.

  6. christian says:

    I agree with Roth. It seems to me that the predominant trend has been away from “philanthropic work” towards more “synergistic nonprofit” work. Point-in-case is Google’s annual April Fool’s day prank: http://www.google.com/intl/en_us/landing/cadie
    It drew attention to google’s other products, pointing google search users to gmail, google docs, google earth, etc.

    In the last 10 years, a number of corporations have been important, high-profile sponsors of open source software. It has some of the aspects of Bell Labs style research, only outsourced!